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A massive amphibious U.S. task force led by two aircraft carriers steamed toward the Persian Gulf today, where more civilians were told to get out and military preparations signaled impending war with Iraq.

Seventeen ships, carrying 16,000 sailors and Marines, sailed from East Coast ports today, eight of them from Norfolk, Va., Naval Base. The Navy said they should be in place in the Persian Gulf by Jan. 15, the U.N.-imposed deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.

The deployment included a rare same-day departure for two aircraft carriers, the America and the Theodore Roosevelt.

They will join three other carriers -- the Kennedy, Saratoga and Ranger -- already operating near Saudi Arabia, where the bulk of U.S. forces sent to the Middle East have been based since Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2.

In the Pacific, the U.S. Seventh Fleet said 13 combat ships, the largest amphibious task force to leave the U.S. Pacific coast in 25 years, had arrived in the Philippines on its way to bolster the anti-Iraq alliance.

Two brigades of the Army's 1st Infantry Division -- 4,400 men with 25 mm cannon, machine guns and TOW anti-tank missiles -- started leaving Fort Riley, Kan., for Saudi Arabia. They are part of reinforcements to bring the U.S. troop level in the Persian Gulf to 430,000 by mid-January.

President Bush, denying earlier reports, said Thursday there was no progress on setting a date for a proposed meeting between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad -- the last chance to prevent the region from becoming a battlefield -- and there would
be no compromise with Saddam over his conquest of Kuwait.

Lt. Gen. Calvin Waller said last week that he did not believe the United States was prepared for a full attack on the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline, and several recent media reports said Bush was told that Waller's assessment has wide support among officers in the gulf.

But Bush said Thursday, "Don't believe those reports you're reading" and noted he was "very comfortable" with the firepower on hand.

He did say he was still hopeful for a
peaceful resolution of the crisis.

Iraq's information minister, Latif al-Jassem, confirmed in a television interview from Baghdad that no progress had been made on a meeting. Nor, he said, would Iraq leave Kuwait. "Our policy is fixed," he said.

Eighteen days remain for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait before the U.N. deadline or face possible attack by a U.S.-led force of half a million troops from 30 nations.

The New York Times reported today that inoculations of soldiers against biological weapons could begin "within a matter of weeks," but a Defense Department spokesman declined to comment on the report.

In Saudi Arabia, British troops fitted more armor to Challenger tanks and infantry vehicles to try to cut casualties.

Jordan, seen as sympathetic to its giant neighbor Iraq, sent troops and tanks to its frontier with Israel in case Israel tried to attack Iraq through its territory.

Saddam said this week that Israel would be his first target if war broke out. Israeli leaders have promised to hit back hard in response to any Iraqi strike.

Cable News Network said Washington was completing standby plans to evacuate more than 30,000 U.S. citizens from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf countries before Jan. 15.

On Wednesday, the Defense Department ordered "non-essential" U.S. personnel and dependents to leave Jordan and Sudan well before mid-January.

Saddam made finding a solution to other Middle East problems, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, a condition for possible talks. The alliance ranged against him rejects this.

In other developments:

The U.S. Army is calling up a Reserve unit that recovers soldiers' bodies and arranges for their burial. The 630th Quartermaster Company, with nearly 40 soldiers, is to begin reporting Jan. 3 in New Orleans, said an Army statement.

A letter to Bush signed by 101 members of Congress urges holding off on a military strike to give international economic sanctions more time to take hold. The letter, drafted Thursday, contends that the U.N. resolution "does not commit or authorize the use of the United States armed forces" and that only Congress can approve military action.

Saddam met Thursday with Soviet Deputy Premier Igor Belousov, but details of the talks was not released. A Soviet diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said all but about 200 Soviet workers have agreed to leave Iraq before Jan. 15.

About 1,000 Soviets had earlier said they would remain beyond the deadline because of concern about unrest and economic problems in the Soviet Union.

In Moscow, the Congress of People's Deputies approved a resolution supporting the U.N. measures to oust Iraq from Kuwait, the state news agency Tass reported. Legislators called on Iraq, a former Soviet ally, "to fulfill demands of the international community based on the rules of civilized life and legality."

China called Thursday for efforts to find a peaceful solution up to the last minute, but the visiting Kuwaiti foreign minister said it was too late for new initiatives.

"The responsibility lies with the Iraqi side if it is to avoid the scourge of war imposed upon its people," said Sheik Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, demanding an Iraqi pullout.

French officials say Mirage F1-CR jets in the gulf will be grounded if war breaks out because the supersonic aircraft resemble Mirages in the Iraqi air force. A military spokesman said it could be difficult to tell the planes apart on radar. France was a major weapons supplier to Iraq during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war.

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